Fasting. When you hear the word today, what does it mean to you? What images does it conjure up in your head? Dieting? Cleansing? Detox? If we take dieting in today’s world, we think of restricting our food intake to conserve calories with the ultimate goal of losing weight. We often hear people talking about the need for “dieting” to fit into clothes or just to be healthier. January New Year’s resolutions often include “going on a diet”.   Lately, we also hear more and more about “cleaning”.  The 3-day juice cleanse. The 21-day detox kit. Drink these shakes to “cleanse” to a healthier you. To take it to the next level, there are infomercials on specific cleanse routines. People sharing their testimonial about how successful their cleansing was and how much weight they lost. You get it. We all get it. It’s everywhere.

Our verses today are Matthew 6:16-18:

16 “And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. 17 But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, 18 that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

If we go back to biblical times, fasting was common. It was often attributed to people who were very sad, or in deep distress. They “put on sackcloth and covered themselves in ashes”. It was a ritual viewed as humbling the soul and doing all to give focus to God. People were so upset, they didn’t eat. They didn’t have time to eat nor was it on their list of priorities for the day. They needed to be focused on prayer.

The other fasting in the bible had to do with very significant events. Jesus fasted for 40 days in the wilderness before beginning his journey into the land to share his word. Moses fasted for 40 days before going up to Mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments. As I prepared to write this post and researched fasting vs. dieting, I altered my prior view of fasting to giving up something you like. I think of it more of how people give up sweets or diet coke or chocolate during Lent, not completely starve without food or water.

In today’s message, Jesus teaches us how to fast the “correct” way. He does not want it to be a public display of “hey look at me, I’m on a diet (fasting)”. He doesn’t want us to fast for attention. He suggests if we are to fast, we must do it in secret or quietly. We don’t need to put ashes on or even sackcloth. He suggests we are clean when we decide to fast or give something up. It seems as if he does think fasting draws our attention to prayer, to being close to God. If we give something up, and we are in the word with God, we have an opportunity to truly listen to what he may be telling us or sharing with us during our prayer time. He suggests that we will hear his word if we are silent and away from others to avoid distraction. We will enjoy his “reward”.

I am not exactly sure what I am going to do about fasting after reading and studying these verses.  Maybe I should rethink Lent next year? I am open to your ideas too! I do walk away thinking more about how he directs us to be close to him in prayer. Just as he tells us not to serve just for attention or to give just to say we gave, we shouldn’t fast for the wrong reasons.  Another lesson for us on how to listen to God and to give him our undivided attention as we pray.

Psalm 78